Like the great, riveting horror movie it is, Inside Job begins with suspense-building misdirection. You think you’re following one story — the economic rise and fall of the small island country of Iceland — so you go, Oh, isn’t that mildly unnerving. Then the action shifts location, to the economic rise and fall of the giant world power that is the U.S. of A. And the story gets vertiginously scarier. The scariest part is this: Every twist and turn is true. Step by step and billion after billion dollars lost, master documentarian Charles Ferguson explains the American financial crisis of 2008 and what it means to you, me, mortgage holders in Florida, factory workers in Detroit, Grandma, the too-big-to-fail financial institutions that have played fast and loose with investors’ money for years, the government officials who said By all means, keep at it, and, for that matter, the journalists who, on the whole, never raised an eyebrow. We’re in the worst mess since the Great Depression; we’re staggering over rubble from a man-made earthquake that renders the ground every one of us walks on unsafe, having already left millions of Americans without jobs, homes, and safety nets for the future. The instability has spread to the rest of the world. And as the documentary (authoritatively narrated by Matt Damon) clicks together pieces of evidence — convulsions of greed led by investment and banking firms, malfeasance ignored or tacitly condoned by the government, deception and rogue dealings that make Gordon Gekko and his Wall Street cronies look like Little Leaguers — viewer horror is guaranteed to give way to fury. Under the circumstances, this is a good and appropriate thing to feel.
The documentary is structured around gentlemanly interviews — many featuring key players in the debacle — that lead to astonishing revelations. For instance, Ferguson digs deep into the lesser-known area of academic culpability at the highest Ivy League level as professors earn extra cash moonlighting as corporate advisers. (With the one-two punch of Inside Job and The Social Network, former secretary of the treasury and Harvard University president Lawrence Summers gets a whomping at the movies this fall.) The photography is crisp, attentive, and uncluttered. The graphics are minimal and muscular. The music, by Alex Heffes, sounds organic rather than laid on merely to push buttons. In production values and narrative style, Ferguson follows an effective, well-built route similar to the detailed road map he used for No End in Sight, his previous, vital 2007 documentary (his first!), which made what sense there could be made of U.S. involvement in Iraq.
It’s a coincidence that Inside Job appears in the same season of Waiting for ”Superman,” Davis Guggenheim’s impassioned study of the American public-education system. But that’s fine with me. I’ll take the double feature of must-see nonfiction films as reason for optimism: Here are two beautifully made documentaries about important issues, guaranteed to immerse, enthrall, and motivate anyone adventurous enough to seek them out. Be one of those seekers.